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What does Islam stand for?

How we handle the Muslim world is obviously one of the trickiest tasks we face in the coming years. There is an awful lot of distrust of Islam and no real idea of how to allay the fears of it which many seem to harbor. Yet how we view and work with the Islamic world, especially in light of recent events in Gaza and with the execution of James Foley, is nevertheless critical to our safety in the future.

So, how do we view Islam? That is a question which doesn't have an easy answer. The most logical point would be to look towards Muslim teachings for guidance. Yet that brings on a few difficult questions, not the least of which is: who exactly do we go to for answers?

There are many more sects within Islam than most folks imagine. A brief internet search reveals that there at at least five branches of the religion, dominated by the Sunni and the Shi'a with several smaller groups. Within Islam are four schools of thought, any of which are deemed valid to follow.

This rudimentary understanding of Islam really only heightens the problem. When there are many sects of a religion, coupled with the lack of any real hierarchical structure within it, then who actually speaks for Islam? The ones who preach peace or the ones who cry war?

Compare this to the Catholic Church, were we find a highly structured organization which can be approached as to the Catholic stance on such and such a question. We may not like what it says to us, but we cannot doubt what it means to say.

Unless we can find a source of Islam which speaks for all of Islam, can we actually ever know whether it as a movement can be trusted or not? This isn't to say that individual Muslims are bad people. As likely as not, the overwhelming majority of them are fine and outstanding members of their communities struggling with day to day life as most everyone else does. Yet do those folks speak for all of Islam when they speak, or simply for themselves as they see it no matter how heartfelt?

Without a final source on what Islam means it will be difficult to understand it more fully. And without such understanding, can the other hurdles ever be overcome?